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7 people, including 5 children, are killed, 8 hurt in Florida crash involving 2 big rigs, 2 passenger vehicles

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The church van headed south was packed with children, an hour to go before reaching Walt Disney World after a 700-mile trip from Louisiana.

A semitruck, operated by Prime Inc. of Springfield, Missouri, rumbled nearby.

In Interstate 75’s northbound lanes Thursday afternoon near Gainesville, another semi, this one operated by Eagle Express of Homewood, Illinois, and a car smashed into each other, the Florida Highway Patrol says. The velocity and weight of that now out-of-control semi burst through the metal guardrail, taking the car with it.

The two semis, the van, and the car slammed into each other, diesel fuel leaked and the mass erupted in a fireball.

A fifth car, unable to avoid the chaos, sped through, possibly hitting victims ejected from the vehicles, the highway patrol said. Five of the children, ranging from about 8 to teenagers from a Pentecostal church in Marksville, Louisiana, and the two truck drivers died. At least eight others were injured, some seriously.

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Flames engulf vehicles after a fiery crash along Interstate 75 Thursday about a mile south of Alachua, near Gainesville, Florida. Highway officials say seven people have died after a crash and diesel fuel spill sparked a massive fire along the Florida interstate. (Associated Press: WGFL-Gainesville)

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“It is a heartbreaking event,” Lt. Patrick Riordan said Friday. Identities of the victims have not been released. He did not identify the church involved, but an unnamed volunteer from the Avoyelles House of Mercy church in Marksville and quoted in the Facebook page of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy said the congregation lost “half of our babies” in the crash.

Church officials did not immediately respond to phone calls.

Riordan said the cause of the initial crash remains under investigation.

The accident occurred on a clear day along a straight, flat stretch of Interstate 75 outside Gainesville, the home of the University of Florida. It is a busy stretch of a highway that connects Florida to the rest of the South, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.

Its lanes fill daily with semis carrying produce and goods that barrel among cars, vans, and buses filled with tourists headed to and from Orlando, Tampa, and southern Florida.

Vinnie DeVita said he was driving south and narrowly escaped the crash — he saw it in the rearview mirror, immediately behind him, according to a report by WKMG .

“If I had stepped on the brake when I heard the noise, undoubtedly, I would have been in that accident,” DeVita said. “And then within probably 15 to 20 seconds of it all, it exploded. I mean, just a ball of flames.”

Nicole Towarek was traveling northbound with her family when they came across the scene. She told the Gainesville Sun that black smoke billowed, people were laid out near vehicles, there were long skid marks across the roadway and emergency workers were converging on the area.

“We kept seeing these little explosions and fire,” she said. “The heat, it was insane.”

The National Transportation Safety Board would normally send a team to help with the investigation, but cannot because of the federal government shutdown. Riordan said Friday that will not impede the highway patrol’s efforts, which could take months.

Florida Department of Transportation Troy Roberts said the agency is investigating whether the guardrail should have stopped the northbound crash from crossing the highway or whether the crash was too traumatic.

“The guardrails are there to stop as much as they can, but there are some things they cannot,” Roberts said. “Unfortunately, in this case, they did not.”

It was the worst accident on I-75 in Alachua County since January 2012, when 11 people died in a chain reaction crash attributed to heavy fog and smoke on the roadway, which crosses Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

Officials were criticized then for not closing the road due to worsening conditions, and later installed cameras, sensors and large electronic signs to help prevent similar crashes.

 

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The Nation

Diesel prices continue inching upward

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The average price for a gallon of diesel nationwide rose exactly one penny for the week ending March 25, to stand at $3.08 per gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). With the weekly increase, diesel costs 7 cents more than it did a year ago and 11½ cents above a recent low-water mark in late January, where the price hovered at $2.965 for two weeks and then at $2.966 for two more before beginning the current slow climb.

Diesel prices rose in every EIA region in the country with the exception of the Central Atlantic region of the East Coast, which saw a tiny $0.003 drop in diesel, to finish at $3.310, which is still the highest price to be found anywhere outside California and is 9.3 cents above what it was in the Central Atlantic a year ago.

North and south of the Central Atlantic, the New England and Lower Atlantic regions both recorded price increases of $0.014, giving the aggregate East Coast an increase of $0.008, to stand at $3.132. In New England, the price of diesel stands at $3.214, while in the Lower Atlantic, it is $2.995, one of four regions where diesel is still under $3 per gallon.

With a minimal $0.001 increase, the Midwest stayed just below the $3 threshold, at $2.993, while the Gulf Coast, as usual, enjoys the lowest diesel prices in the nation, at $2.876, up $0.007 from a week earlier.

Diesel also remains under $3 in the Rocky Mountain region, at $2.974, after a 3-cent gain, the second-largest increase, after California’s $0.038 price hike. The Rocky Mountain region is currently the only region in the country where diesel costs less than it did a year ago.

The overall price of diesel rose on the West Coast to $3.526, an increase of $0.029. California has both the highest diesel prices, $3.819, and the highest year-to-year increase, an even 15 cents.

Crude oil prices were split on Monday, Brent crude, the international benchmark for oil, rose by 18 cents, to $67.21 a barrel, while U.S. crude ended Monday’s session down 22 cents, at $58.22.

Early Tuesday, Brent was up 92 cents, and U.S. crude had added $1.28.

Click here for a complete list of average prices by region for the past three weeks.

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Pothole season creating bumper crop of bumpy roads

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An Ohio Department of Transportation crew fills in a pothole. Conditions this winter and early spring have caused a notable increase in the number of road divots appearing this year. (Courtesy OHIO DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION)

A harsher-than-usual and prolonged winter is increasing the pothole repair workload for many state departments of transportation.

The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) reported March 18 that its crews patched 400,000 potholes through the first two months of 2019, compared to the approximately 619,000 potholes they patched for all of 2018.

The agency plans to keep 300 pothole patching crews busy statewide with roadway repairs through April.

“We are working as hard as we can to fill the potholes,” said Becky Allmeroth, MoDOT’s state maintenance engineer and chief safety and operations officer. “Some potholes have to be repaired multiple times because of additional rain. The temporary repairs are not holding. We ask motorists to please be patient with us as the repairs are being done.”

She noted that her agency’s repair crews address the deepest potholes first and that until roadway temperatures rise and remain above freezing, repairs are made using a cold asphalt mix. She added that MoDOT spends approximately $15 million a year on pothole patching operations for the 34,000 miles of road it maintains.

“However, this is a short-term repair,” she stressed. “The long-term fix, a hot asphalt mix, isn’t effective until temperatures are warm for a prolonged period of time.”

The Ohio Department of Transportation noted in February that it had already used 2,574 tons of asphalt to repair potholes; up from 1,892 tons at the same point in 2018.

“Our crews have spent more than 39,000 hours patching potholes this winter,” said ODOT Director Jack Marchbanks in February 1 statement.

He added that potholes are a “common nuisance,” particularly when the freeze/thaw cycle weakens the pavement. This happens when water seeps into cracks in the pavement, then expands as it freezes. When temperatures warm up, and the ice melts, the pavement contracts, allowing even more moisture in to freeze and thaw.

“Add traffic on top and the pavement will eventually fail, creating a pothole,” Marchbanks said. “Roadways with a high volume of traffic are particularly prone to pothole formation.”

The Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration has also stepped up its pothole repair work, noting in a March 7 statement that with “saturated grounds” from record-setting precipitation from 2018 into 2019, and the freeze/thaw cycle that is occurring during this transitional time of the year, “potholes are popping up everywhere.”

 

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Midwestern state DOTs contending with major flood damage

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Flooding in Nebraska earlier this month closed as much as 1,500 miles of roadway at one time, with many roads and bridges wiped out, (Courtesy: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Capt. Ryan Hignight)

A “bomb cyclone” that struck the Midwest earlier this month, causing major flooding across Nebraska and parts of Iowa and Missouri, is responsible for more than $1 billion in property losses, as well as damage to highways, roads and bridges, according to reports from those states.

The Nebraska Department of Transportation stated that more than 1,500 miles of roads were closed at the height of the flooding on March 18, with 15 major highway bridges completely washed out or severely damaged as a result of the high waters.

The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) reported that as of March 20 more than 80 percent was under emergency declaration orders, including 77 counties, four tribal nations and five special government areas such as unincorporated townships.

“This past week will forever be remembered for the historic, devastating flooding our state experienced,” Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a March 19 statement. “In scope of reach, we believe it is the most widespread natural disaster in our state’s history.”

The flooding, caused by heavy rains occurring simultaneously with melting snow, was exacerbated by chunks of ice swept along by the waters that damaged buildings and infrastructure, NEMA noted.

Nebraska National Guard helicopter crews resorted to dropping hay to cattle stranded by the high waters to ensure they didn’t starve.

The Midwest flooding also triggered an emergency declaration by the Federal Railroad Administration on March 19.

“The large amounts of snow and ice resulting from the region’s recent winter weather have melted and swelled rivers, creeks and other inland bodies of water throughout the region,” the agency said in its statement. “Historic flooding throughout the region [witnessed] rivers rising to historic levels in over 40 locations, causing power outages and breached dams and levees.”

The Iowa Department of Transportation closed sections of Interstate 29 and established detours on March 15 in cooperation with the Missouri Department of Transportation and other public agencies, and placed restrictions on parts of Interstate 680, as well, due to flood damage.

Missouri DOT also issued a reminder to motorists on March 20 not to drive around road closure signs as “flooded roadways can be more dangerous than they appear because the road may have washed away or collapsed under the water. In addition, the water may be deeper than it appears and can hide hazards such as sharp objects, electrical wires or chemicals.”

Several state DOTs have been dealing with the impact of winter-related flooding and landslides this year.

On March 20, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency in 37 counties that suffered serious highway damage following severe weather that began back in February.

“Many of these roads are in dangerous condition, impacting the safety of Ohio’s drivers,” the governor said in a statement. “By declaring a state of emergency, Ohio can now access federal funding to help with the unplanned costs to repair the highways damaged by heavy rain and flooding.”

The emergency proclamation will allow the Ohio DOT and local governments to access federal emergency relief funds.

For example, the Federal Highway Administration provided $10 million Emergency Repair, or ER, funding to the Tennessee DOT March 15 to cope with roadway damage caused by “historical rainfall” in 72 counties in February. The Ohio DOT received $4.5 million in ER money from the agency the same day to help repair State Route 376 after a landslide caused by heavy rains forced it to close in late February.

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